What is an Irish session?

by Katrina VanTyne
In the simplest terms, an Irish session is an informal gathering of musicians who play Irish music. Usually a player starts a tune and plays it 3 times through then goes into another tune (or two). This is called a tune set. And the hope is that the majority of other players  know the tune and play along. Sounds simple right? Well there’s more to it.

Although each session is slightly different there are a number of unwritten rules to adhere to and tidbits of info you should know about:

  • Open & closed sessions – An open session means anyone who plays Irish music can sit in and play tunes or start a tune set. A closed session means there are a set number of players playing and you are not invited. It’s nothing personal.
  • You must play Irish music – I know it sounds silly to say but really if you play Jazz music, Old Timey music , Bluegrass or anything else, this isn’t the place for you to show off your chops. There are other jam sessions for that. But that’s another blog. You really just play Irish music at a session.
  • Practice before you come. Know your tunes before you come. This isn’t the place to teach or learn a tune from a friend. That’s not to say you can’t pick up some tunes while you’re there but no one really wants to hear someone learn a tune, if you know what I’m saying. Most sessions are in a public place and its as much for the audience as for the players.
  • It’s okay to record – most Irish musicians learn by ear so it is usually cool to bring a recording device of some sort and record the tunes. Just be sure to ask the session host if its okay.
  • Lift your foot up – When you start a tune set and you’re ready to go into the next tune, it is customary to lift your foot up to let the other musicians know you’re changing tunes.

If you’re new to the session scene my suggestion is to go to a session and just listen for the first couple of times.  Try to find out what the core tunes are and bring your recorder so you can go home and learn them.  And most importantly don’t get discouraged. Playing in a session is an art in itself. It takes time, practice and courage to start a tune or even play along.  Ease into it slowly an enjoy yourself!

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